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ECHO Weathers Third-Year Blues

Local Matters


Published October 11, 2005 at 10:23 p.m.

BURLINGTON -- They're blaming it on the weather: After a summer of gorgeous days, and sagging admissions, ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain is feeling the pinch. The nonprofit has had to eliminate two positions on its 16-member staff, including its director of external affairs, and is looking for new sources of revenue and other ways to cut costs. Apparently, the management and board for the lake aquarium and science center on Burlington's waterfront were a bit too optimistic about their projected attendance goals for this year.

"We had a pretty tight summer here, to be perfectly frank, and had to do some restructuring," says Phelan Fretz, ECHO's executive director. "We're now 28 months old and still figuring out where we sit in the landscape and where the attendance is really going to be."

One of the chief culprits, says Fretz, was last summer's beautiful weather, which was a boon to local businesses and attractions that rely on outdoor recreation, such as Vermont's state parks, but a bust for indoor venues such as aquariums and museums. About half of ECHO's visitors come in the summer, Burlington's peak tourism season. "Some people talk about having a rainy-day fund," says Fretz. "We have a sunny-day fund."

According to Fretz, about 50 percent of ECHO's $1.5 million budget comes from admissions, retail sales and other on-site income, such as rental for private parties and meetings. The rest comes from government and foundation grants, private donations and support from ECHO's various community partners.

In ECHO's first year, it had about 150,000 visitors, Fretz reports. This year, the center only expects to see about 100,000. The drop-off is significant, but not atypical. New museums, aquariums and science centers usually see their attendance fluctuate in the first three to five years after opening, as their novelty wanes. But Fretz claims that ECHO is still exceeding industry trends; other facilities of its type often experience a 60- to 80-percent reduction in visitors by the three-year mark.

"It's a wonderful, beautiful building on the waterfront in Burlington, but it's still a nonprofit and, basically, we still subsidize everybody who comes through the door with contributed dollars," Fretz says. In fact, about 10 percent of ECHO's attendance is either free or at a reduced admission. "That's a big commitment and we don't want to lose that commitment. It's part of being in the fabric of the community," says Fretz.

Fretz doesn't foresee more layoffs in the coming month, but he and the ECHO board are looking at other ways to cut expenses, such as reducing winter hours or finding new exhibits that will attract return visitors.

"It's not that something terrible is happening," Fretz says. "It's just some shuffling out and making sure that we're very fiscally prudent, but at the same time maintain the guest experience, which is so important."

The ECHO Center could still be in a tough stretch. Many of its winter visitors are schoolchildren, and although school bookings appear to be in good shape, tight budgets and high fuel prices may force some schools to cut back on field trips.

Private charitable donations are expected to be lower for all nonprofits this year, too, as Hurricane-relief efforts soak up much of that money. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that charitable donations for the nation's largest natural disaster have topped $1.7 billion, far outpacing the rate of giving for both the Asian tsunamis and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Groups like the United Way are reminding donors not to forget their local nonprofits.

ECHO -- an acronym for Ecology, Culture, History and Opportunity -- was a $14.5 million project that was 10 years in the making. About half of the center was funded with federal dollars secured largely through the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy, for whom the building was named.